Long road to justice

Written by P THIRUMALAI RAJAN | Published on: February 1, 2003
The only moral that emerges from the judgement in the Melavalavu murder case is that Dalits still have a long way to go to get just and fair treatment before the law

The Melavalavu murder case, as this criminal investigation is popularly known in
the state of Tamil Nadu, relates to the brutal murder of a duly elected Dalit panchayat president and his five associates (Crime No. 508/97 of Melur Police Station) in the Madurai district of Tamil Nadu. The six Dalits were murdered by the caste Hindus — Kallars, belonging to Mukkulathors of Madurai district — purely due to upper caste arrogance. The courts, while convicting some of the accused, failed to deal with the brutal offence comprehensively.

The deceased were: Murugesan (president of Melavalavu panchayat), Chelladurai, Sevakamoorthy, Raja, Bhoopathi and Mookan. A stark recital of the facts of the case may enlighten the readers as to the background of the gruesome murders which took place in broad daylight on June 30, 1997.

The Melavalavu Panchayat falling within the Kottampatti block in Madurai district was originally a general panchayat, and, in which, after elections to the same, the Kallar community occupied presidentship. However, during the elections to the local bodies in 1996, this panchayat was reserved for a scheduled caste candidate and the seed for the brutal murder was sowed by the majority Kallar community.

The election to the said panchayat had to be postponed thrice due to the non–filing of nominations from the schedule castes, due to fear of facing the wrath of the Kallar community and once, due to rioting and booth capturing. Prior to December 31, 1996, the district collector and the superintendent of police of Madurai camped at Melavalavu and persuaded Murugesan (Deceased No. 1) and others to file nominations. As a result of this, Murugesan filed his nomination and won the election.

The Kallar caste also fielded their henchman from the schedule castes but in vain. Their intention, in fielding an amenable candidate from the scheduled castes, was to get the elected person to resign after the election took place — as has happened in Keeripatti and Pappampatti recently.

However, Murugesan remained unyielding to any pressure from the Kallar community. Thereafter, there was an open threat to his life.

The five other deceased in the case were close aides of Murugesan. All of them had been receiving threats to their life frommembers of the Kallar community. The representatives of this community could not accept a schedule caste man as the president of their panchayat.

In pursuance of his official work, Murugesan and five of his close associates went to Madurai collectorate on June 30, 1997 to submit a memorandum for compensation for some huts of Dalits which had been torched some days previously by some miscreants (believed to be from Kallar community).

While on their way back from the Madurai collectorate to their village, the deceased encountered some of the accused who got into the bus at Mellur. As the bus proceeded on its route, and when at 3.15 pm, it reached Melavalavu Kollukadai, Medu, one of the accused threatened the driver of the bus and got him to stop the vehicle. Immediately, about 30 to 35 people from the Kallar community hidden by the roadside, surrounded the bus with weapons such as bill hooks, daggers, lathis etc., in their hands.

Sensing the danger, Murugesan and the others tried to flee from the bus. But they were brutally attacked by the accused and Murugesan and his five close associates died on the spot. Murugesan’s head was severed from the trunk and thrown into a well about half a kilometre from the scene of crime. (It was subsequently recovered by the police from the well.)

On the basis of the complaint lodged by Krishnan PW1 (prosecution witness 1), a co-traveller in the bus, the crime was registered and, after investigation, 41 people were charge–sheeted for the offences under section 120–B, 302, 307, 148 and 506(II) I.P.C. and Sec 3 (2) (V) of the SC, ST (Prevention of Atrocities Act) of 1980. The case was transferred from Madurai to the sessions judge at Salem district after a long battle in court. I was approached to conduct the case as special public prosecutor at Salem and appointed by the state government to the said post.

At the conclusion of the trial, the court found 17 of the 40 accused guilty and sentenced them to life sentence for the offences under section 302 IPC. This is the first time that there has been conviction under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities Act), at least in Tamil Nadu.

However, as prosecutor, some key questions remain unaddressed and unanswered by the court: mainly with regard to how the court was inclined to out prosecution under section 120–B (Criminal Conspiracy) and Sec 3(2) (V) of the SC/ST Act.

Question One:
The sessions court ruled that only 17 people were guilty of the crime. How could these people have assembled at the scene of occurrence, to surround the bus on that fateful day in June, without a pre-meditated plan by way of criminal conspiracy?

It is not as if that there had been a riot between two castes and these 17 people participated in the same. Naturally, the inference should then be that the accused had gathered solely in pursuance of a criminal conspiracy to attack the deceased by waylaying them on their way back from Madurai.

In such a case, under normal circumstances, section 10 of the Indian Evidence Act should have been invoked, which provides that every conspirator whether or not he participated in the crime should be convicted for the same offence.

Question Two:
Why was section 8 of the SC/ST Act not invoked? This section provides for a presumption that the offence in the present case was only a sequel to the dispute regarding the election. There was no personal enmity between the deceased and the accused at any stage prior to the panchayat election. The one immutable fact was that the deceased party would not follow the dictates of the accused, led by the number one accused who was the panchayat chief prior to the reservation for SC/ST candidates.

In the absence of any other previous motive, the motive attributed by the prosecution ought to have been accepted and thereafter, section 8 should have been invoked. All the accused ought to have been sentenced for offence under this Act as well.

Question Three:
Tahsildar Pullani (PW44) had submitted a parallel report undermining the case of the prosecution. Under whose instructions did he prepare this report? This report laid the basis for the defence theory that some other people had been the cause for the murders.

After he was declared a hostile witness by the prosecution, this witness admitted that on no occasion had he seen the FIR, nor was he ordered to submit any report to the collector. He stated that he acted on his own volition to create a parallel story to suit the theory woven by the defence.

The tahsildar, who was a public servant at the time, should have been charged for providing false information to the state and therefore liable for offence under section 3,2 (VI) (VII) of the SC/ST Act. This irregular parallel report by the tahsildar (which has been preferred to the FIR) has been the basis for the release of the convicts on bail and permission for an appeal to be filed before the High Court.

Ironically, the law is applied differently to different sections. A court in the nation’s capital, New Delhi, invokes the provision of section 10 of the Evidence Act to convict a non-participant in the attack on Parliament but another, in faraway Salem, does not invoke the said provision of law in cases relating to atrocities on Dalits. The only moral that emerges from this legal battle is that Dalits still have a long way to go to receive just and fair treatment before the law. 

Archived from Communalism Combat, April 2003. Year 9  No. 86, Dalit Drishti